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Just a Thought - Is Apple Fostering The Criminal Element?


- March 29th, 2005

Coming Of Age

I know a guy -I will call him Bob to protect his identity- who is a criminal; he's the scum of the earth!

If people knew what Bob was up to, mothers would clutch their babes to their bosoms when they see him pass by, and men would make public speculations about Bob's lineage, and offer him directions to subterranean hot spots.

Why is Bob such a low life, vile, pond scum swilling vermin?

Because he rips audio CDs he borrows for his local library into his Mac so that he can play audio books on his iPod.

I know, I know; makes you want to cross yourself, even if you aren't Catholic.

I still talk to Bob because, well, beyond this one intractable and utterly reprehensible fault, he's not a bad person. He helps his neighbors, opens doors for ladies (or at least those ladies who know nothing of the true nature of this beast), and he drives a car that gets 30 miles to the gallon. And I found that, if I concentrate really hard, I can look past Bob's ongoing transgressions and try to understand why this otherwise decent being would shame himself and his family by continually perpetrating such evil.

It's not that hard to understand, really: You see, Bob likes audio books. He drives 40 minutes to work each day, and to wile the time away in traffic, Bob likes to listen to King, Crichton, Brown, or Koontz.

Bob also loves his iPod, and takes it everywhere he goes. It's easy to imagine Bob reasoning that if he loves his iPod, and likes audio books, why not put the two together? After all, what harm is there in making a copy of a borrowed CD for personal use? (Bob tells me that he deletes the files of any copied audio book once he's done listening, so I guess he isn't a complete waste of protoplasm.)

I have to admit, I have, once or twice, entertained the notion of borrowing and ripping one of the latest best sellers from my local library.

I ride my bike to work, a 15 minute trip each way, and, while I love music, it would be nice to break up the beat a bit and expand my literary horizons. True, I could just listen to the CDs the library provides, but that's kinda redundant, and it's taking a step backwards. I have an iPod, dammit! I should be able to listen to anything!

So, I decided to take a look at what my library has to offer by way of audio books on CD. While I was browsing my library's fairly extensive collection, I noticed an advert on the library's Web site that offered downloadable audio books.

Downloadable? You mean they are pre-ripped? Cool!

I was overjoyed. Now, I won't have to sink to Bob's level, becoming one of the denizens of the underbelly of our fair city. I could proudly walk among my fellow men, listening to borrowed audio books and knowing that my criminal record will remain spotless, and that I'm supporting my local library to boot!

But as I read further my elation slammed on the brakes so hard that I actually heard tires squeal, and my brain slammed into my forehead with such force that I thought my eyes were airbags: The library only supports Window Media Player 9 or better. While I can play the downloaded audio books on my trusty Mac, my beloved iPod is out of the running.

"NO," I wailed, shaking my fist at the screen. Through tear blurred eyes, I read the words from the library's FAQ page. They seem to shout back at me, mocking me and my little white music player: "The iPod is not compatible with Windows Media Player files and therefore the downloaded audiobooks will not play on it."

What can I do? Buy another music player just so I can listen to the downloadable audio books my library offers? I don't think so! Again, I have an iPod, dammit!

Now I'm back to thinking with criminal intent, eying the library's audio book collection with jealousy and contempt. I wanted to march into the main branch of the library, demand to speak to someone in charge, grab the person by the ears, and give him or her a healthy dose of iPod reality!

How dare they only offer WMA 9 formatted audio books! Don't they understand that the iPod has more than 60% of the portable music player market? Don't they know that there are twice as many iPods plugged into the ears of its patrons that any other digital music device?

Then I thought, "Hold the phone there Sparky, I shouldn't blame the bespectacled librarians for opting for WMA, it is hardly their fault."

I mentally relinquished the imagined librarian's ears, apologizing while an imagined team of security guards, resembling rejects from a Conan, The Barbarian movie, pummeled me with night sticks into a mass of imaginary, yet submissive pulp.

The object of my wrath does not work at the Orange County Library's central office, he resides on the other side of the country. The fault lies squarely with the boys and girls at 1 Infinite Loop. And as much as I absolutely hate to admit it, Microsoft has done something better than Apple.

Big Redmond's media software is similar to Apple's AAC files with FairPlay in two ways that matter: Both can play high quality content, and both include a Digital Rights Management (DRM) system. But Microsoft's WMA is more open, it will allow you to license and author DRM protected content, whereas Apple's FairPlay makes no such offer.

While libraries could easily encode audio books into AAC, or even MP3 format, it would have no means of protecting the intellectual property of the authors and publishers of the audio books it offers. For them, WMA is really the only choice.

My library's system is cool, too, but you can tell it smacks of Big Redmond's 'good enough' credo. You can download and listen to an audio book for 3 weeks, and the DRM of WMA keeps track of the time, automagically prohibiting you from listening further once the time is up.

There's a somewhat cumbersome renewal process, which can extend your listening period twice, after which you will need to download the book again. I have to believe that an Apple-based system would be easier for the end user to manage.

But what's really nice about this online lending system is that users won't have to wait for others to get done with the material before they can get it -- everyone can download a copy as soon as it is available. Sweet!

Unfortunately, we iPod users have come up with the messier end of the stick this time. We must either become criminals, or watch as owners of somewhat less capable, and completely less cool music players take advantage of an absolutely stellar public service.

I have to believe this is the way of the future for audio books. Libraries all across America and around the world will be offering its members audio, and perhaps video content to download, making library material available around the clock. It's a great concept, and if Apple doesn't see that, then someone is asleep at the wheel (Buddy boy!).

As I see it, Apple has 2 options: Allow iPods to play WMA formatted and protected files, or offer to license FairPlay so that libraries and others can offer and manage protected audio content.

Actually, there may be a third option, too. Apple's iTunes (for Windows only) currently converts unprotected WMA files to AAC format. Why not go one step further and convert protected WMA files to FairPlay protected AAC files? That keeps all the control on Apple's side, leaving them to license the related WMA technology from Microsoft. This is a less glamorous, but nonetheless workable solution, and if there's one thing Steve Jobs loves, it's control.

I'm going to suggest to Bob that he write Apple and ask them to do something about this problem, and if you are in Bob's predicament I suggest you do the same. If Apple hears enough noise maybe they will do something.

In the meantime, once law abiding iPod owners, like Bob, are increasing the ranks of the criminal element. Only you can help them to stop their ungodly ways, Mr. Jobs. Please help Bob. Please help all the Bobs, before it's too late.

is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

You can send your comments directly to me, or you can also post your comments below.

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